Last Tuesday, businessman Jim Pillen secured Nebraska’s Republican gubernatorial nomination, beating Trump-endorsed rival Charles Herbster by just over three percent. This is the first blemish on Trump’s endorsement record, as the Nebraska establishment largely lined up behind Pillen.
Herbster’s loss could be attributed to voters being more selective when picking their governor, a trend seen in the handful of states where the executive identifies with a party strongly unfavored in presidential races due to an abundance of ticket-splitters. This could also be the result of a more well-established Republican party in Nebraska. Most primary voters there know a GOP before Trump, and are therefore more hesitant to pick a candidate solely because of the former President’s endorsement.
Electorally, Pillen won by gathering a strong spread of votes throughout the state, unlike his rivals who had weaker coalitions limited to either urbanized or rural Nebraska. Split Ticket had rated this race as Leans Pillen, and with his nomination, we can categorize the November race for Governor as Safe Republican.
WV-02 & What It Means For Trump’s Future House Endorsement Record
The first double-bunking congressional contest of the 2022 cycle ended with an outcome that could be characterized as both expected and unexpected. Despite being at a 2:1 territorial deficit and lacking a seniority edge, Trump-endorsed Congressman Alex Mooney (WV-02) triumphed over his colleague David McKinley (WV-01) by almost 20 points.
Split Ticket’s Tossup-Tilt Mooney rating was technically right, but we woefully underestimated the strength of the ex-Maryland state Senator’s momentum. Since our call was hardly an outright victory, we have instead placed solace in our correct pre-election description of the most probable path to a lopsided Mooney win.
Mooney, once viewed as an underdog, was able to win by overcoming his opponent’s significant regional advantages. Incumbents with geographical edges are usually insurmountable in double-bunking primaries because they have easier access to familiar constituents. Even in loss, though, McKinley garnered more support in his corner of the former 1st than did his challenger.
As this excellent map by J. Miles Coleman of Sabato’s Crystal Ball shows, Mooney laid the foundation of his victory by winning 71% of the vote in the less-significant southeastern parts of the new 2nd that he currently represents. He proceeded to seal the deal by defeating McKinley 47-42% in the unfamiliar half of the new seat that cast 70% of the this week’s vote.
To win, or at least keep it close, McKinley would have had to have won the section of the redrawn district that he currently represents by margins half as large as those that Mooney posted on his home turf. The keys to Mooney’s success in this part of the district were victories in the more-populated counties formerly in his rival’s district: Monongalia, Marion, Harrison, and Wood.
McKinley’s regional backing was most visible in and around his home in Ohio County (Wheeling), where he received 62% of the vote. That clearly was not enough to make up for losses in other population centers further south. Considering the fundamentals, the Mountain State political veteran should have done a lot better in the northern panhandle as a whole.
Mooney’s win breaks historical precedent nationwide and in West Virginia. When Democrats Allan Mollohan and Harley Staggers were double-bunked in this same region back in 1992, Mollohan prevailed because his territory packed the biggest electoral punch. That was obviously not the case for Mooney, who succeeded despite serious baseline impediments.
Ultimately, Mooney’s ability to reduce the potency of regionalism stemmed from his Trump endorsement. The ex-President breathed life into his campaign, giving him a fundraising lead that he used to broaden his image and draw in unfamiliar voters. But most of his supporters, especially those currently represented by McKinley, probably voted for the idea of Trumpism rather than for Mooney himself.
After successful House endorsements in Ohio and Texas, though OH-13 was close and Majewski was not officially-backed in OH-09, there is no doubt that Trump considers Mooney’s resounding win yet another example of his endorsement’s post-presidential strength.
But this characterization might only be true for districts in other historically-Democratic parts of the country. West Virginia’s changing political winds were undoubtedly hastened by Trump, who brought appealed to many life-long Democrats in a way that no GOP Presidential nominee had before.
Observers can juxtapose this dynamic with Pillen’s victory in Nebraska, a state where the Republican primary electorate is composed primarily of life-long party members who are unafraid to buck the former President’s will.
Trump’s endorsement is still important, despite the primary outcome in the Cornhusker State. Its affects can be felt anywhere, but its ability to bring a candidate across the finish line everywhere remains to be seen.
If underdog Trump-endorsed candidates like Russell Fry, Katie Arrington, Vernon Jones, and Jake Evans are successful in the coming month, some reevaluations of this theory will be needed. For now, however, this concept seems like a sound one.